I’m continually impressed–sometimes amazed–at the progress plant breeders have been making, especially in the past 20 years or so, in developing varieties and hybrids with new and/or improved characteristics. Two cases in point: The ability of corn hybrids to tolerate less-than-ideal soil moisture conditions, and alfalfa varieties–both genetically modified and produced by “traditional” plant breeding techniques–with reduced/delayed lignin development.

In the case of corn’s ability to tolerate dry conditions it’s sneaked up on us: Both Monsanto and Dupont-Pioneer have been working hard at developing hybrids with this trait, but if you look at the ability of corn hybrids in general–not ones designated as “drought tolerant”–you’d see that plant breeders have been making progress in this characteristic for many, many years. Today’s hybrids not only have the ability to produce more corn grain per unit of nitrogen fertilizer, but to do so under tougher growing conditions than those of grand-daddy’s day. And when adequate moisture is present, the drought-tolerant hybrids will produce just as well as those lacking this trait.

I’m also optimistic about the impact that reduced lignin alfalfa varieties will have, particularly where alfalfa is grown in monoculture–no grass companion crop. These varieties have been shown to yield at least as well as conventional varieties, and in a way may be a step back in time since delayed harvest may result in one fewer cutting per year. That means less fuel, less labor, and–let’s not underestimate this–less wheel traffic damage. In fact, some midwest research has found that the reduced-lignin alfalfa actually yields more in three cuts than conventional varieties do in four. It’s still early, but so far reduced lignin appears to be a winner, with the only downside significantly higher seed cost. But spread over three or four years this price premium might seem like small change.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: May 13, 2016, 1:17 pm | No Comments »

There’s difference of opinion on the primary cause–long-term climate cycles or man-made global warming, but there’s no question that our climate has changed, and quickly enough that it should be noticeable to anyone with even a few grey hairs. That’s because there’s been significant, measured change in our climate just since 1990, a mere 26 years. The average dates of first and last frost have changed by 4 to 5 days, with an earlier last frost in the spring, and a later first frost in the fall. However, the change hasn’t been equal across the U.S., which should surprise nobody. In the Eastern U.S. the increased length of our growing season has increased by less than half as much–2 days at most. However, first and last frost dates don’t describe in-season temperature changes, and as you might expect these have also increased.

What does this mean for farmers? If you’re still planting the same crop maturities, particularly corn and soybeans, that you were 20 years ago it might be time to re-evaluate. Cornell University has found that the ideal maturity rating of soybean varieties for a particular area of the state is later than when in a previous evaluation. Therefore, if, for instance, you’ve been planting Group 1.2 maturity soybeans for many years you should give some consideration to a slightly later variety–perhaps Group 1.5 maturity. Or if you’ve been planting 95 RM corn hybrids, considering a move to 98 RM hybrids for at least a portion of your acreage, This assumes, of course that you’ve been able to mature the crops without difficulty, year in and year out–which especially in the case of corn harvested for silage, is NOT always the case. Because it’s still better to plant hybrids that will reliably mature on your farm, under your management, than to shoot for the moon and wind up with an immature crop.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: April 2, 2016, 11:31 am | No Comments »

We’re headed to St. Thomas for a week of family sun and fun including a day of deep sea fishing. We’re also heading into “Zika territory”, since St. Thomas is one of the Virgin Islands where the Zika virus has been confirmed. This doesn’t particularly concern me since none of our family is pregnant, or considering it. One of the proposed methods for confronting Zika is by developing, raising, and releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the infested areas. These insects would breed with the native population of mosquitoes but the resulting progeny would die before they reach adulthood and become a potential disease vector. This isn’t simply theory–the genetically modified mosquitoes have already been developed and there have been some trial releases. There’s a concern that we don’t know the impact this would have on the species that feed on these mosquitoes, particularly birds. Would the genetically modified mosquitoes only impact the one or two species that carry the Zika virus? We know the immediate goal, but how about those infamous “unintended consequences”? That’s how an intentionally-introduced species, kudzu, would up infesting the southeastern U.S.

That said, the human impact of Zika is so terrible, primarily devastating birth defects, that in this case I think that some level of risk is acceptable. Insects have shown a remarkable ability to withstand almost any attempts at eradication–in fact, I’m not sure that any insect has been completely eradicated though one particular species of ladybugs might be the exception. I admit that I’m “pro-biotech” but in this case think it’s something that many people who are normally on the fence would accept.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: February 18, 2016, 1:19 pm | No Comments »

04  Jan
A shiny new year

The new year begins with a cold snap in the East, horrific floods in the Midwest, plummeting stock prices both here and globally, a presidential primary race that’s somewhere between high drama and low comedy, and as noted in my previous post, the impending merger of two of the biggest seed companies in the world. So far I haven’t read much in the popular press about the Dupont-Dow merger, but there’s been some concern expressed about reduced competition having an impact on seed prices. Perhaps, but in my opinion it won’t be great. Short-term it appears that there won’t be much change in the prices of seed corn or most forage seed for 2016 though this has nothing to do with the merger. Both dairy farmers and cash crop producers aren’t in a particularly good cash position as we head into the new year, though it appears that milk prices may soon increase enough to put many if not most dairies back into the black. Prices of 2016 cash crops, particularly grain corn, are of course as yet unknown but some scarily low prices are being mentioned by market analysts. Of course low grain prices are good for livestock producers–can’t make everyone happy.

I’m hopeful that this year will see some action on a national basis regarding the labeling of GMO foods. (By “action” I mean a decision, not simply more contentious lobbying on both sides of the issue.) My preference is no labeling, but the technology is there to have food labels contain much, much more consumer information than it presently does. The question is if the additional information would be worth what it would cost the food manufacturers to do so–a cost that would certainly be passed down to consumers. One can always hope…

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: January 4, 2016, 1:37 pm | No Comments »

One of the big news stories is the impending merger of Dupont-Pioneer and Dow-Mycogen. However, long-time observers of the farm seed business shouldn’t be surprised since seed company mergers are nothing new. You don’t have to have grey hair to remember the Dupont’s purchase of Pioneer, nor Monsanto acquiring several national and regional seed companies. Look at some of the old seed company names–Taylor-Evans, Beachley-Hardy, Northrup-King, etc.–suggests that mergers have been going on for about as long as the farm seed business itself.

Some folks worry that a Dupont-Dow merger will reduce the competitiveness of the field crop seed business. While this may happen, the companies have to report to shareholders whose focus is the bottom line and what needs to be done to protect or improve it. Many years ago an old seed company executive told me that the field crop seed business has never been a high-profit one. For instance, the price of seed corn is moderated in part because not only are there a handful of big, multinational seed companies selling farm seeds, but many regional seed companies as well. Invent a new drug to control cholesterol–such as Lipitor–and the potential profits are huge, at least as long as the patent is in force. But if a seed company releases a new corn hybrid it may be competing with a dozen seed companies large and small offering hybrids with similar performance. Nobody makes a “killing” in the seed business: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: December 24, 2015, 6:08 pm | No Comments »

05  Nov
Bacon up

So, bacon and other processed meats have been declared by the World Health Organization to be carcinogenic, in the same class as cigarettes and asbestos. What some of the reports haven’t mentioned is that 99.9% of the products that the WHO has investigated as potential carcinogens have been determined (by the WHO, anyway) as carcinogenic. So your morning strip of bacon and ham sandwich has plenty of company, along with paint and the air in even a modest metropolitan area. But it’s useful to look at the likelihood of processed meats causing cancer: According to the WHO, about one in every 2400 cancer deaths can be attributed to diets that are high in processed meats. If you don’t eat processed meat every day, the numbers are even less worrisome.

Another point most reports neglected to mention is that WHO’s conclusion was anything but unanimous: The organization likes to have its findings unanimous, but in this case there were a significant number of scientists on the committee that looked at the same data and didn’t detect a connection. Even more specious is the declaration that red meat is “probably carcinogenic”. It may be good at this point to remember that at one time eggs were so high in cholesterol that folks who had eggs for breakfast more than rarely should start making plans for their heart bypass surgery, and that whole milk and butter were similarly harmful—use low fat dairy products and margarine. They were wrong about those, and perhaps are wrong about meat. So eat, drink and be merry.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: November 5, 2015, 5:31 pm | No Comments »

They say it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Perhaps, but there are risks. While on a 4-day golfing trip to Myrtle Beach with a bunch of buddies, a friend decided to buy a new set of irons. After doing so he called his wife with the news, with a bit of trepidation about her reaction since they hadn’t discussed the purchase. But she didn’t say much, which gave him a feeling of relief.

It shouldn’t have; when he arrived home he discovered that his wife had completely refurnished their livingroom, and while his new set of irons weren’t cheap they were trivial compared to the cost of the furniture!

It’s not quite the same, but over the years I’ve had farmers call me, asking “What would happen if ______.” with the end of the sentence usually some foolhardy or ill-advised crop practice. I’d tell them they absolutely should not do it, at which time they’d fess up that they already had. This includes drilling oats in a field that the previous year had received five pounds of atrazine per acre (five times what he should have used), and spraying a new alfalfa seeding with 2,4-D, an application that was, is, and probably always will be off-label. So in a way they were hoping for permission after the fact, and when this wasn’t forthcoming, seeking forgiveness. (“I forgot how much atrazine I used last year.” “Gee, I’ve used 2,4-D on alfalfa seedings before and while it curled the seedlings up it never killed them.”)

Words to the wise: If it doesn’t seem like a good idea it probably isn’t, and when it comes to questionable cropping practices it’s wise to look before you leap.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: October 2, 2015, 4:10 pm | No Comments »

03  Sep
Crazy stuff

This has nothing to do with crops or even agriculture, mostly about mysterious happenings that I can only partly understand. I’m not a believer in ghosts, extraterrestrials or other supernatural stuff, but sometimes…

First was the mystery of the wave action in my toilet bowl whenever the wind was blowing. Being a guy I spend a certain amount of time each day standing in front of the bowl, (lid up of course) peering in to assure acceptable trajectory and aim. (I try to remember to put the lid down afterwards and almost always succeed, since the few times I did’t resulted in unfortunate incidents with the other resident of the household). Anyway, I asked a certain e-list why there were small but discernible waves, and was told that it was because of the pressure differential as the wind blew across the top of the standpipe. Now this sounded like a perfectly logical explanation until I considered that the hole in the standpipe is no more than 2″ in diameter, and a 10 mph wind blowing across it would seem to have very little impact on several gallons of water 20 feet below (we have a 3-story house so the top of the pipe is WAY up there). So while the answer may be technically correct, it strains credulity.

The second happened this week. We have an indoor-outdoor thermometer in our 2nd floor bedroom; a wall clock-thermometer reading the inside temperature and a remote unit that sits outside to measure outside temp. It worked fine last year but this spring when I put the batteries back into both units the outdoor temperature wouldn’t register. I put new batteries in both, even getting so desperate as to read the instructions (I know, hard for an adult male to admit). No dice. So I said the hell with it and removed the batteries from the outdoor remote and set it on my dresser. Over the weekend the batteries in the clock-thermometer died so I installed new batteries and suddenly I had an outdoor temperature measurement! Huh? I first figured that it was reading from the remote unit on an identical unit that we have in our kitchen, but that’s around the corner and down a flight. Then I noticed that the outdoor temperature was slightly different on the two clock-thermometers. Then I thought–gee, maybe our neighbors have one of these little remote units. I did some surreptitious checking and sure enough, strapped to the side of their house was a remote unit! It’s simply amazing that the unit has the power to send a signal down one story, across two yards and through a thick bush. I told my neighbor that when the batteries on his remote die he might see me sneaking into his yard with a couple of replacement batteries. He no longer even uses the thermometer, said he was surprised the batteries were still good. Now I’m not positive that his unit is what’s sending what appears to be accurate temperature readings to my clock-thermometer but it’s the only explanation I have. Other than ghosts, that is.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: September 3, 2015, 12:05 pm | No Comments »

I call myself semi-retired but the emphasis is on the semi since I go to the “office” every day–even more often than when I worked full-time for Miner Institute. That’s because the Institute’s office then was 26 miles away while now it’s right in my home and I’m on-line every morning year-round. True, I don’t get out into fields nearly as much as I used to but there’s still some of that, and responding to questions from farmers, Extension folks and agribusiness professionals usually requires a good memory more than “feet on the ground”. People seem to appreciate my attempts to answer their questions–and I always reply to them, but their questions also keep me informed as to what’s bugging them (often literally). I still do a fair number of farm and agribusiness meetings each year, another source of two-way communication; heading for Buffalo in a week to speak to a group of farmers and feed company nutritionists.

Most of my business these days is at the keyboard since I currently write monthly columns for two farm magazines, Hoards Dairyman and Farming, and occasional articles for three others including publications in Australia and New Zealand. Hoard’s Dairyman has Central/South America and Japanese editions so between these and the monthly Miner Institute Farm Report which has a fairly large subscriber list of its own, in one way or the other I “get around”, so to speak.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: August 3, 2015, 12:25 pm | No Comments »

“Man, despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication and his many accomplishments, owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”

This anonymous quote is especially noteworthy this summer, as about the same amount of rain in June is affecting field crops much differently 100 miles or so from here than it is locally. Both regions–Northern NY and the region south of Lake Ontario both north and south of I-90 (NY State Thruway)–generally got between 5 and 6 inches of rain in June after a moderately to very dry May. But what havoc they wreaked on crops differs greatly depending on soil type. In much of Northern NY the soils are glacial tills without a lot of clay content. Oh, there are areas especially along Lake Champlain and parts of NW Franklin County where there are some clay loam soils but much of the crop production is on lighter soils. Yesterday I made my annual trip to Cornell University to speak on crop production to a group of vet college graduates from all over North America and a few foreign countries. My trip took me just East of the Finger Lakes so not into the heaviest soils but it was obvious that the corn crop wasn’t as good as much of it in this region. A lot of corn there was knee-high to waist-high, whereas around here the farmers who got their corn planted in May have corn over their head for the past week. I used to call heavy clay loams “Sunday soils” because they were too wet to work on Saturday and too dry on Monday, but just right on Sunday–the traditional “day of rest”. This was an an exaggeration of course, but the point was that tilling a clay loam when it was wet could lead to problems that would persist for the entire season.

At any rate, what’s worse than a 6″ layer of touchy topsoil? Less than 6″ of topsoil! I encountered this in Illinois a few years ago, Corn Belt territory where we often think that the topsoil is several feet deep–and sometimes it’s that and more. But on this huge dairy farm they were practicing minimum tillage–no moldboard plowing–because the layer of topsoil was so shallow that moldboard plowing would bring up the coarse sand that underlaid the 3 or 4 inches of topsoil. Not surprisingly this soil didn’t handle droughty conditions well at all!

Ev

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: July 14, 2015, 11:28 am | No Comments »

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